staff photographer

Gillian Jones has been a staff photographer and columnist for the Berkshire Eagle since 2014. She began her journalism career at The North Adams Transcript in 1992.

An elderly woman lies in a hospital bed

The author's mother lies in a hospital bed at a skilled nursing care facility in May of 2017 as an iPad plays music to the left of her.

NORTH ADAMS — I have one of those really old answering machines. It’s got to be at least 20 years old. I cannot control the volume on it and it’s beat to hell. But its value is immeasurable because my mom’s voice is captured on it.

It is a voicemail message from 2017 when she was residing in a skilled care nursing facility following a dementia diagnosis. She resided in that facility for nearly a year before I was able to bring her home to take care of her with the help of a caregiving staff.

“Hey Jill, it’s me, your mother. Um, I don’t know why I’m calling, (she laughs) just to find out that you are where you are I suppose. I’m in a hospital bed here, uh, it’s as comfortable I suppose as I can be. Maybe you could call me back and we could just chat a little, not a lot, a little. OK? Is that alright? Do I have to give you a number?”

“She already knows it,” an aide says bluntly in the background.

“Oh you know the number already. Oh, OK, alright thank you Gillian. Love you. Bye.”

As I wrote the quote, I could hear the voicemail message in my head. It’s as if I’ve heard it so many times, that I have the inflections of her voice and melodic tone memorized.

Lately when I speak, I can sometimes hear my mom’s cadence in my own voice. Not completely but just certain words or phrases that I must have picked up from her over the years. There is definitely a little bit of her in me.

When I was looking through photos immediately following her death, I came across a video I shot with a digital camera some 15 years ago. It was just a video to test out my then-new camera, and I could have just as easily deleted it, but I didn’t and I’m glad I saved it, even if it was just a default action on my part.

We are fortunate to be living in a time when we can document everything visually and audibly. While photography has been creating images of people, places and things since the mid-19th century, motion pictures have been popular for just over a century and home videos since the 1980s.

We can see any movie star or famous person who is no longer living in a movie or on television. With many more people having the ability to make videos in the 1980s, we can conjure anyone from the past, living or dead, and see them as they once were. It is magical to have that ability.

Looking at photos is a powerful tool, but seeing moving pictures with sound is another level. It’s a technology that was not even widely available when my grandparents were born.

One Christmas recently, I joined Dan’s family to watch a video that Dan’s uncle shot in the 1980s and recently transferred to the latest digital medium for easy viewing. Seeing people I love and care about when they were younger was such a gift. While I didn’t know any of them back then, it was a unique opportunity to share a moment in time for which I was not initially present.

You’d think that I’d be the kind of person to want to document everything — and I do, but I also recognize that often the person doing the recording isn’t always experiencing it in the same way as everyone else who is actively participating in the moment. It really is a job and a bit of a sacrifice for that person.

Of course, these days people document everything ad nauseum whether for personal use or social media. The world is creating a digital database of videos and photos that range from the mundane to the ridiculous. A record of this time in history will certainly permeate the digital ether.

Right now, people document everything with their cellphones, and, while annoying at times, I think that it is necessary. Someday those snippets of video or images will be cherished when that person is no longer living.

I can conjure my mom anytime I wish by just thinking about her. I can remember exactly what it felt like to hold her hand. Lately, I can look at my own hands and see the similarities to my mom’s. But to hear her voice and see her alive on video is an absolute gift.

For those times when I need to see her as she once was, I’m fortunate that I am able to.

Gillian Jones, an Eagle visual journalist, writes a monthly op-ed series. Her email is gjones@berkshireeagle.com.